LOS ANGELES - Heavily Democratic California might appear an unlikely national battleground, but a string of competitive U.S. House contests is again poised to play a crucial role in determining control of the chamber as Republicans look to maintain their fragile majority in a deeply divided nation.
The state that was once home for Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan has become so solidly Democratic that a GOP presidential candidate hasn’t won a general election in California since the 1980s. Democrats hold every statewide office and dominate the Legislature, while Democratic voters outnumber registered Republicans by an overwhelming 2-to-1.
Yet pockets of conservative strength remain, particularly in the Southern California suburbs and the Central Valley farm belt. As in 2022, the most competitive contests are concentrated in Republican-held districts that were carried by then-candidate Joe Biden in 2020 — genuinely competitive territory is diminishing nationally.
Leaders in both parties agree that the outcome in California could be the lever that determines who holds the gavel in 2025, after GOP wins in 2022 helped the party gain control. Currently, the House has 219 Republicans, 213 Democrats and three vacancies.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is among those raising money to help his party retake the House. He’s warning of a "disastrous future" if former President Donald Trump wins the White House and Republicans take charge in the Senate. Under that scenario, Democrats must have the House to have any chance of blocking Trump’s agenda, Newsom warns.
If Democrats win four GOP-held districts in the state "we’re going to flip the House in November," Newsom wrote in a recent fundraising pitch. "And each of them has a very good chance."
With the state’s Democratic tilt, Republicans hold only 11 of the state’s 52 House seats. In all, about 10 districts appear to be in play statewide and in some cases the primary election could end up resulting in rematches from two years ago. No incumbents appear in imminent peril.
Voting is about to start, with a Monday deadline for counties to mail ballots.
In the emerging fray, fear of the opposition animates the sales pitch. Democrats are warning about Trump’s possible return to Washington, threats to abortion rights and unchecked gun violence. Republicans fault the party that dominates state politics for high taxes, inflation, vexing crime rates and an out-of-control homeless crisis.
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It’s unknown to what degree the presidential contest will trickle into House races. Turnout could be depressed if President Joe Biden and Trump appear assured of the nominations. Biden’s popularity has faded in the state and nationally, and Trump is widely loathed in California outside his loyal base.
Under California election rules, Democrats and Republicans appear on the same primary ballot and the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election, regardless of political party.
THE SURVIVOR: A GOP CONGRESSMAN IN DEMOCRATIC LA COUNTY
Rep. Mike Garcia is the last Republican congressman anchored in heavily Democratic Los Angeles County. The once-conservative 27th District running through suburbs and high desert north of Los Angeles has become one of the country’s most competitive battlefields.
The district has a 12-point Democratic registration edge but over three elections Garcia has shown an uncanny ability to overcome the odds and confound rivals. It hasn’t been easy — Garcia was reelected in 2020 by 333 votes.
The former Navy fighter pilot and Trump supporter with a reliably conservative voting record was first elected running against California’s liberal-leaning government: "I don’t want my country to turn into what my state has become."
Garcia’s military service — he flew over 30 combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom — would play well in a district that is home to defense industries and popular with veterans and Los Angeles police officers and firefighters. The son of a Mexican immigrant father, his Hispanic surname is likely a benefit in a district with a significant Latino population. He also has displayed a keen ear for local issues, including concerns over crime and illegal marijuana cultivation.
The leading Democrat in the primary is George Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff supported by the campaign arm of House Democrats. He’s been stressing abortion rights and environmental protection and labeling Garcia as out of step with the district.
A TOSS-UP DISTRICT THAT WAS ONCE THE HEART OF ‘REAGAN COUNTRY’
Orange County’s 47th District runs along the California coast southeast of Los Angeles and was once the heart of "Reagan Country," a region long synonymous with conservative politics and known for its ties to the former president. But the county that was once largely white and Republican has grown demographically diverse and increasingly Democratic, and the seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a U.S. Senate candidate, is up for grabs.
Republicans consider it a top target.
Former legislator Scott Baugh, who narrowly lost to Porter in 2022, is the leading Republican, while two Democrats are dueling to get on the November ballot, state Sen. David Min and Joanna Weiss, who founded an organization that promotes progressive candidates.
A STRONGLY DEMOCRATIC DISTRICT THAT VOTES REPUBLICAN
The Central Valley farm belt is a political conundrum. Districts in the sprawling region sometimes called America’s salad bowl typically have significant Democratic registration edges, but those seats are often held by Republicans.
A case in point is Rep. David Valadao, a Republican who has endured despite facing steep registration deficits. Democrats hold a 16-point advantage in his 22nd District. He held his seat from 2013 until January 2019, lost it for a term, then won it back in a 2020 rematch with Democrat T.J. Cox.
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER: Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., is outside a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
He might be headed toward a rematch in November with Rudy Salas, the Democrat he defeated in 2022 who is backed by the campaign arm of House Democrats. Valadao has stressed an independent streak, while spotlighting his efforts to secure more water for farmers, a perennial issue in the Central Valley. Salas, considered a moderate, has depicted Valadao as a Trump acolyte masquerading as a centrist.
Both Salas and Valadao are facing rivals from within their own party on the primary ballot. Republican rancher Chris Mathys is looking to surprise Valadao and state Sen. Melissa Hurtado is competing for Democratic votes with Salas.
ROUND TWO IN THE CENTRAL VALLEY
Republican John Duarte defeated Democrat Adam Gray in 2022 in what was then a new House district in the Central Valley. He won by only 564 votes, the closest congressional contest in the state that year.
They are the only candidates on the March 5 primary election ballot, setting up a rematch in the 13th District, which has a prominent Democratic tilt and a large Latino population. But the most likely voters tend to be white, older, more affluent homeowners, as is the case statewide.
Gray, who is backed by the campaign arm of House Democrats, argues that his party can’t reclaim the House majority without winning his district.
ANOTHER POTENTIAL REMATCH EAST OF LOS ANGELES
Rep. Ken Calvert, the longest-serving Republican in the California congressional delegation, held off Democrat Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor, in a district east of Los Angeles by about 5 points in 2022. That district, the 41st, is about equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Will Rollins (Left) and Ken Calvert (right)
This year could see a rematch.
Calvert brings the advantages of incumbency but his conservative credentials and support from Trump could be liabilities in a district that includes many transplanted Los Angeles residents and the city of Palm Springs, which has a large concentration of LGBTQ voters. Rollins is gay.
Rollins, who is backed by the campaign arm of House Democrats, says it’s time for new leadership and has depicted Calvert as an extremist.
SOUTH KOREAN IMMIGRANT LOOKS FOR ANOTHER TERM IN DISTRICT CREATED TO EMPOWER ASIANS
Republican Rep. Michelle Steel, a South Korean immigrant, is looking for another term in a Southern California district specifically drawn to give Asian Americans a stronger voice on Capitol Hill. Asian Americans comprise the largest group in the 45th District, anchored in Orange County. Democrats hold a modest registration edge.
Steel first won the seat in 2020, then prevailed in 2022 with a 5-point win in the district, which includes the nation’s largest Vietnamese community.
Buena Park, CA - November 07: U.S. Representative Michelle Steel (CA-45) speaks to the media during a get out the vote event at Steels headquarters in Buena Park, CA, on Monday, November 7, 2022. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County
Four Democrats are competing this year, including Kim Nguyen-Penaloza, the daughter of a Vietnamese refugee father and a Mexican immigrant mother who was endorsed by the state Democratic Party, and lawyer and worker rights advocate Derek Tran, the son of Vietnamese refugees.
In Congress, Steel has been outspoken in resistance to tax increases, says she stands strongly with Israel in its war with Hamas and sponsored a bill that would expand oversight related to foreign money in higher education, which passed the House last year.
The race will be watched nationally for hints about the preferences of Asian American voters.
DEMOCRAT DEFENDS COASTAL DISTRICT WITH STRONG MILITARY TIES
Four Republicans are on the ballot in the 49th District running through Orange and San Diego counties, where Democratic Rep. Mike Levin is looking for another term.
Coastal California typically leans Democratic, but the race is seen as competitive. In 2022, Levin got a late-hour visit from Biden in hopes of boosting his chances and notched a 5-point win.
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 7: Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., speaks to Roll Call in his office in the Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday, December 7, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
In Congress, Levin has focused on veterans affairs, as well as climate change and the environment, in a district that straddles Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
Key issues in the race have included immigration, housing and inflation.
"The American people need leadership from Congress, not continued Republican chaos," Levin said in a tweet. "House Democrats are ready to find common ground and a bipartisan path forward."